Categories: Essays Opinion

The Mysterious Demise of Palestinian Scientists in Algeria

The recent deaths of two Palestinian scientists in Algeria once again sparked speculation about Mossad’s nefarious actions in Africa.

The recent deaths of two Palestinian scientists in Algeria once again sparked speculation about Mossad’s nefarious actions in Africa.

The two scientists, Suliman al-Farra and Mohammed Albanna, were studying in Algiers, when they died under mysterious circumstances in their apartment. Assassinating scientists involved in nuclear research or the development of sophisticated conventional weapons is allegedly par for the course for Mossad, which is rumored to have a history of targeting Iranian scientists involved in the development of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programs.

The history of recent assassinations attributed to Mossad

Israel’s national intelligence agency also allegedly had a policy of targeting  Hamas operatives and others who had developed drones that targeted Israel or otherwise contributed to significant security threats. The most recent such allegation is the mysterious demise of the Syrian rocket scientist Dr. Aziz Asbar, who presumably helped the Assad regime to advance its nuclear and other WMD goals.

Presumably, this assassination would also send a message to Tehran. If so, it would be consistent with the allegations that the Iran presence in Syria may be there to hide the footprint of the nuclear scientists, who are continuing with the Iran nuclear research.  However, not all unsolved deaths are likely the work of Israeli kidonim (assassination units within Mossad).  Some of the rumored assassinations ascribed to Mossad by the Palestinians were more likely results of personal disputes or other criminal incidents, such as the death of a young Palestinian man in Sweden. Although the man’s family allegedly had ties to Hamas, there was no available evidence of the man’s personal involvement in any political activities.

Another recent story involves a Hamas engineer, killed under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia. He was known for negotiating arms deals with North Koreans. What business would Hamas have with North Koreans? North Koreans are always looking for new markets, furthermore they also serve as conduits for other countries – such as Iran and Russia – to make deals on their behalf.. That Hamas was willing to make arms deals with whomever was selling is less noteworthy than the apparent North Korean connection extending into Gaza.

Likewise, Malaysia is another country where North Korea has a great deal of influence.  Kim Jung Un’s half brother was assassinated there, with four men being seen fleeing. The NY Times, in its original report, cited intelligence sources claiming that Mossad assassinated the Hamas engineer to end Hamas operations abroad, which is plausible. Israel publicly dismissed this claim. If that were to be the case, it would seem that Mossad understands the danger of North Koreans selling arms to Hamas, not only because the Kim regime is lethal and unpredictable, but because Iran might be working through Kim Jung Un to increase volatility in Gaza by any means possible.  However, this story might be more complicated than it appears.

Af first glance, in the last few months, there were a number of assassinations against actors seen as adversarial to Israel’s interests among others. Most of them did not appear to involve North Korea, but illustrated the same pattern of involving actors who were a real threat to Israel’s security. Many of them likely were funded by state actors such as Iran, and may have been a part of an organized network. If that is the case, these incidents follow a set pattern of operations which are meant to eliminate the immediate danger and to send a message to other people involved in arms deals or research that Israel finds unacceptable to its own security. A number of these stories involve North Africa. For a while, there seemed to be a lull in the purportedly Mossad-led hits on Hamas and Iran-backed operatives and scientists; however the string of incidents in the past two years shows that with the conclusion of the nuclear deal,  clandestine deals and research seems to continue.

This pattern of latest incidents in North Africa would be consistent with the renewal of such operations after a scandalous story involving an assassination of another Hamas member in Dubai, which caused rifts between the Mossad and the French intelligence and other European countries, due to the use of European passports during the operation. Preceding that, Mossad’s alleged assassinations of various other Hamas members, as well at least four Iranian nuclear scientists, drew headlines and international attention for a while. At the time, former Defense Minister Ya’alon  hinted at Israel’s involvement in these hits. Interestingly, the nuclear scientists, for the most part, met their end in Iran, rather than while working in other countries.

This dynamic has shifted lately, after the conclusion of the nuclear deal. Just as with Syria, Iran has been making alliances with a number of African countries to facilitate business in the event sanctions are reimposed, and in order to recruit new allies and proxies to ease its geopolitical agenda. For years, the United States has ignored the entire African continent – with the end result of the weakening and destabilization of a number of strategically located countries, and proliferation of extremism. Smuggling, clandestine meetings, and underground research and activities to further that research would find the continent welcoming at a time when Iran is looking to avoid public scrutiny. In preparation for any potential future deals with the Trump administration, Iran would have been wise to clean up any irregularities on its own territory and shift its forbidden activities elsewhere.   Has Iran relocated the bulk of its nuclear program outside the country?

Hamas operatives and Iranian Advisers Grow More Visible in North Africa

These assassinations in North Africa became more frequent in recent months. For instance, what business did a Tunisian national, Mohammed Zouari,  have joining Hamas, a Middle Eastern regional organization, and becoming a drone maker? Whatever the reason, he soon met the same fate as his Middle Eastern counterparts. This incident may have demonstrated the long arm of the Israeli intelligence, but it also showcased the reach of Hamas, supposedly concerned mainly with the cause Islamism in the Palestinian world.

Instead, it appears to have connections and supporters all over the world, including in North Africa. Mohammed Zouari, also known as Mohammed al-Zawari, was born in Tunisia but, fleeing the Ben Ali regime’s oppression of the Islamist Ennahdha party, moved to Syria in 1991, where he was likely further radicalized.  He had a background in aeronautics and skills in drone making, which made him a valuable recruit for Hamas, which operated in the vicinity. He ended up supervising the drone program Ababeel1, which was used against Israel in the Gaza War of 2014.

Mohammed al-Zawari was not just a drone team member, but the commander of Hamas’ military branch the Qassam Brigades. He eventually returned to Tunisia, where he was assassinated in December 2016. That both alleged terrorists and alleged intelligence operatives are able to operate in Tunisia with such  raises questions about its security protocols. However, that is hardly the only episode showcasing Africa, and particular the North, as a new scene of operations for spy games.

Not too long ago, in a similar incident, two Iranian advisers went shopping for uranium in Libya, relying on Tunisia’s porous borders to achieve their goals. Alelgedly, the advisers were part of a senior delegation dispatched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in furtherance of Iran’s clandestine nuclear research. Their lives came to an end in what appeared to be an assassination consistent with the above-cited episodes, and Iran’s renewed quest for uranium, equally consistent with its public threats to return to its nuclear program in response to the United States withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) came to the fore.

This apparent continuation of Iran’s nuclear research presented a direct threat to Israel’s security. Prime Minister Netanyahu in the past has stated repeatedly that Israel would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Indeed, in that light, the assassination of the Hamas engineer connected to North Koreans in Malaysia may very well have fit the apparent pattern of Mossad eliminating potential and present security threats

If the advisers in Libya were indeed assassinated by Mossad, their liquidation was meant to reinforce the message to Tehran that Israel is watching closely all attempts at furthering this program. Just as with the Hamas technology expert in Malaysia, the two Iranians in Libya were killed by unidentified perpetrators in a roadside hit. The Hamas operative was gunned down by a hail of 14 shots by two men on a motorcycle. The Iranian advisers were likewise shot to death by unidentified gunmen who fled the scene. . In both instances, the individuals were connected to rogue state actors and were involved in deals that were a threat to international security, and certainly to Israel.  On the other hand, there could be another Mossad-related explanation if the intelligence agency was involved at all.

Recently, it was discovered that a former Israeli Minister of Energy, Gonen Segev,  had been living in Nigeria as an Iranian spy. Interestingly, he moved to Nigeria to practice as a doctor (with a suspended license), and allegedly started working for Iranians in 2012; around the same time, Israel was alleged to have eliminated several Iranian nuclear scientists. By that point, the Obama administration was involved in secret nuclear deal negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

However, Iran’s nuclear research was ongoing and would not be frozen until Iran entered into the agreement with the P5+1 a couple years later. At the time, it most assuredly was on the way to acquire a nuclear bomb, and presented a security threat to Israel, various Gulf states, and others. At the same time, Iran was busy acquiring missile parts and other sophisticated weaponry through third parties, often flying in these parts via Thailand and Ukraine.

Iranians were operating all over the world; they already had a significant presence in Western Africa, thanks to the extensive network of the African Hezbullah that was financing the terrorist activity there through various criminal schemes. For Israel, it would have been natural to try to gather intelligence from the local operatives about some of Iran’s most threatening operations – such as the occasional use of Ukrainian airplanes to smuggle missile parts, used to build missiles that could hit Israel – or learning the whereabouts of the nuclear scientists who continued with the program, even as the negotiations with the United States were ongoing.

Iran had offered to underwrite Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program – yet another area of cooperation between the Islamic Republic and North Korea that threatened Israel. Gathering intelligence on these threats from Tehran was presumably Segev’s purpose in making contact with the Iranians in Nigeria.

With the help of Mossad, Segev was finally arrested as he fled Eritrea in May 2018, whereupon he was detained and turned over to Israel.  Segev was well known for having smuggled drugs into Israel in the past, and serving time for various small frauds; however, at least some of the pattern in this murky story points to the fact that at some point he may have been an Israeli asset playing double agent, who possibly went rogue. The story reveals more than anything, however, the extent of Iranian operations in Africa – as well as the fact that Mossad, aside from its legendary, and possibly conspiratorial escapades in assassinating known threats, is likely also interested in traditional intelligence gathering.

If that is the case, it is clear that Mossad engages in traditional intelligence gathering against adversarial regime, not just assassassinations of anyone who appears to be an obstacle. If so, some of the assassinations attributed to Hamas could be interpreted differently. Could it be that the Hamas operative in Malaysia, too, was a double agent for Israel looking to uncover Hamas links to North Korea’s arms trade, and perhaps, clandestine programs – who was caught and eliminated by North Koreans or another involved party? He would have been well positioned to do so. Kim Jong Un, too, is known for eliminating his enemies, including his own half-brother who had allegedly met with a US agent, in Malaysia and elsewhere by similar means. If the Hamas operative had double crossed North Koreans by spying for Israel, his liquidation by the North Korean intelligence could offer a different explanation for that event.

Iran Grows Alliances in North Africa in a Bid to Counter Western Interests

China is Iran’s top oil trade partner, and may likely be opening, rather than closing doors

facilitating access to other African states for Tehran, throughout the continent where China has successfully established a growing business empire – and itself is rumored to have had aggressive intelligence runs-in with the Mossad.  Iran, however, did not stop at occasional business transactions, but rather set out to create political problems in West and North Africa. Iran-backed  Hezbllah has long been an agent of chaos in West Africa, masterminding various and sundry criminal schemes to finance its terrorist operations elsewhere.

Hezbullah has also in the past planned terrorist attacks against Israeli and Saudi targets in West Africa. Iran ha been known to back Shi’a militias in the Sahel, complicating the US and French counterterrorism efforts in the area. The North Africa trajectory appears to be a more recent effort, with Iran sowing divisions between Sunni and Shi’a, which were non-existent prior to Iran’s more aggressive engagement in North Africa since 2016, when the Saudi Embassy in Iran was attacked, and KSA and a number of African allies severed relations with the Islamic Republic. Since then, Iran upped the ante throughout Africa, looking to counter Saudi influence by coopting its allies, and later, in search of new business partners when the Trump administration announced its  intent to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

The uptick in Iranian activity in North Africa includes a campaign of Shi’a conversions, according to a former Algerian politician who warned Europe about Iran’s influence campaign in North Africa shortly before Morocco severed relations with Tehran. But just how recent were these operations? Despite the impression made by the media that Iran’s involvement with Algeria, Hezbullah, and Polisario was almost an ad hoc recent effort, Moroccan intelligence records these contacts going back at least two years. In other words, after its break up with Saudi Arabia, Iran looked to challenge and weaken her allies in the continent that was a far reach for a country undergoing rapid internal reforms under a new and much younger government.

These developments coincided with the Saudi air campaign in Yemen, which started in 2015 in response to Iran’s backing of the Houthis, who came to target Saudi territory with sophisticated Iran-provided missiles. Likely, the attack on the Saudi embassy in 2016 was a deliberate provocation that would escalate the tensions and give Iran a justification for a more aggressive recruitment of allies against Riyadh.

With the election of Donald Trump, whose administration is staunchly opposed to Tehran’s regional expansionism and nuclear ambitions, Iran found a new reason to increase its activity – opposition to the alleged Western bullying. In reality, however, Iran’s threats to block up the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandeb in Yemen, and the Horn of Africa threatened international interests, including the United States, Israel, and the Saudis. Rather than resolving the crisis with Riyadh, Iran chose to take its perceived grievances to Africa and to use Africa as a launching pad to advance its interests in Yemen.  Somalian routes and Eritrean ports provided Iran with perfect vehicles for smuggling weapons and people into Yemen. Morocco’s staunch pro-Western stand, however, blocked Iran’s ambitions Northward.

Algeria’s role in this instance is to destabilize Morocco, while Iran is looking to expand its influence into Morocco’s mosques, recruit followers, and proxies, and potentially gain access to international waterways, while spreading to West and North Africa. Polisario was seen as a gateway to achieving these goals.  Iran’s cooperation with Algeria goes beyond this focal anti-Morocco point. Only a few days before Morocco’s break with Iran, Tehran and Algiers emphasized their growing parliamentary ties. In other words, Iran’s influence extends far beyond intelligence operations focused on the common adversary. Algeria was also a long time supporter of Iran’s nuclear program, for which Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif expressed public appreciation. The Morocco-related scandal did not jar either country, both of which denied any wrongdoing.

Algeria Facilitates Iran’s Influence Campaign

Tracing spy related incidents in Africa, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that a number of state actors, in conjunction with non-state organizations share an interest in nuclear development and illicit weapons procurement. It is no coincidence that Israeli operatives appeared to have focused their efforts on a number of states with a history of interest in nuclear reactors. Perhaps this is also an explanation for more recent contacts with Iran. Shortly after the assassination of the Hamas engineer in Malaysia, assigned to Mossad, in April 2018, Algeria arrested seven Africans accused of spying for Israel, and sentenced them to death and prison time. Given Algeria’s recent 7-year prison sentence for a blogger who interviewed an Israeli official, the “international spy ring” for Mossad may very well have been “fake news”.

However, Algeria’s close ties to Iran and Russia and a history of interest in nuclear research makes it clear that its actions may indeed present a significant threat to North African, as well as global, security. In the past two years, , for instance, Algeria was allowing Iran to use its embassy in Algiers for clandestine operations run jointly with Hezbullah, which was training and arming Polisario, a Western Sahara separatist group, known for its opposition to Morocco.  Morocco severed its relations with Iran over that series of episodes on May 2, after accusing the embassy of promoting sectarianism in North Africa.  Morocco then accused Algeria of providing Hezbullah with a backdoor to North Africa.

Algeria’s relationship with Iran has been a source of consternation for a number of countries in the Arab world, as well as for Israel, since the restoration of the relations between Tehran and Algiers in 2000. The Sunni majority Algeria had rejected Saudi Arabia’s entreaties to join the coalition of Muslim states against ISIS, instead, aligning itself with the Shi’a Iran, seen as a regional rival to to the Gulf States, and a facilitator of terrorism. Algeria likewise backed Iran when the latter protested the exclusion of Bashir Assad from attending the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca in 2012, at the height of the civil war in Syria.

Iran has successfully exploited Algeria’s tensions with Saudi Arabia over energy prices and political differences. Algeria joined the Iranian-Russian alliance against Saudi Arabia, over the latter’s efforts to keep the oil prices low. Iran has viewed Algeria as a sphere of influence in Africa and against the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states for many years to the escalation of tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. In 2006, Iran and Algeria formed a joint committee which would fund $100 million worth of Iranian project inside Algeria.  Likewise, state visits between high level officials increased since then, becoming more pronounced since the conclusion of the nuclear deal. Algeria itself has been going through a severe economic crisis, including high unemployment rates among its young population. The leadership of the Islamist opposition party in Algeria, believes Iran is set on exploiting the economic situation to further its own agenda and spread influence in Algeria.

If that is the case, Iran appears to have succeeded. The two countries continue exploring economic ties, with Algeria growing increasingly dependent on its cooperation with Iran. Indeed, Iran’s Ambassador to Algeria, Reza Ameri, emphasized Algeria’s support of Iran against sanctions, and willingness to cooperate on “peaceful” nuclear activity as part of the foundation for the growing rapprochement between the two states. He also emphasized the similar political positions between Tehran and Algiers, which stand out in light of the important political differences between Iran and the other North African countries.

Algeria supports Iran’s position in Syria and Yemen, in particular. Morocco, which is part of the Arab Coalition in Yemen, is an obstacle for the spread of Iranian influence in North Africa. The Ambassador implied in the interview that he saw Algeria as a key independent ally and influencer in Africa, which could be used to challenge the positions of the other Sunni states, in Tehran’s view, more closely aligned with Saudi Arabia.

For that reason, Tehran’s use of its embassy in Algiers to facilitate Hezbullah’s contacts with the separatist group Polisario to advance staged attacks on Moroccan Royal Forces, should come as no surprise. Antagonizing and destabilizing Morocco would help Iran spread its ideological influence throughout North Africa, destabilize the region, help gain access to strategic waterways, and find new ground for recruiting extremist proxies. Algeria would benefit from weakening and eliminating its regional rival; Iran’s assistance in that matter furthers its own ambitions in the context of the African Union.

Algeria is not the only African country where Iranian influence has increased. South African agent communicating with CIA, Mossad, and other intelligence agencies, in a cable leaked several years ago, expressed concern about Iranian intelligence presence in South Africa, as well as Iran’s ability to coopt the corrupt South African government.  Despite political tensions between South Africa and Israel, the intelligence agencies of the two countries shared a common understanding: they viewed the spread of Iranian influence through Africa as a threat.

Iran has viewed Africa as a sphere of influence for ideological influence, humanitarian goodwill, cooptation of weak corrupt governments, evasion of sanctions, illicit arms and gold trade, and procurement of uranium for its nuclear research. Ghana has been one of its top partners for the uranium procurement; in fact, prior to the implementation of the JCPOA, there is evidence of a joint US-China effort to get bomb-grade nuclear effort out of Africa. However, China’s role in the possible facilitation of Iranian operations is less clear.

Algeria and Iran Share an Interest in Nuclear Energy – and Joint Efforts on a Nuclear Program?

Moreover, only a week after the diplomatic fallout, Iran and Algeria jointly held their first energy summit, further emphasizing their growing ties which the countries are not trying to hide. That angle in the relationship should come as no surprise: both countries have one more thing in common – a history of nuclear ambitions. In the 1990s, Algeria pushed for building a nuclear reactor, much to the consternation of the West.  In another striking coincidence it then asked for Chinese assistance (and also some Argentine help) with the controversial Es Salam reactor.  Could China have been trusted with the denuclearization of the fuel in Africa, given that history and close links to Iran?

That question remains open, but the Obama administration, eager to implement the JCPOA, thought that the cooperation with China on that issue was a good idea. Over time, Washington forgot all about Algeria and its potential for nuclear proliferation. But perhaps Iran has not. Perhaps it had nothing much to fear, given Washington’s slow reaction to the news that China was helping Algeria with its nuclear program – contemporaneously, and at the height of concern over that issue.

Indeed, evidence points to the fact that Algeria’s interest in nuclear energy renewed along with the hoopla over the JCPOA. In 2014, Algeria and Russia (another close associate of the Islamic Republic) signed a nuclear energy cooperation deal. Algeria’s Western partners have been lackluster in following through on agreements regarding Algeria’s civil nuclear program; Moscow appears to be more interested. While Algeria had refocused on promoting its program, Iran, coincidentally spread its outreach to Brazil, Indonesia, and Algeria in an effort to win allies and counter opposition from the West.  Brazil, reeling from endemic corruption issues, Indonesia, increasingly concerned over the spread of Sunni jihadist organization and the spread of ideological extremism in the mosques, and the poor, corrupt junta-led Algeria suffering from a high youth unemployment rate found a reliable partner in Tehran willing and happy to overlook all of these legitimate business risks.

The timing could not be better for Iran – just as Iran outwardly appeared to be willing to put aside its own nuclear program, Algeria put its uranium exploration leases in the south out for tender in 2009 – the time of the very first initial outreach efforts from Islamic Republic to the White House concerning a potential nuclear deal. Algeria has approximately 26,000 tons of uranium, in the high-cost category.

Is Iran looking to procure uranium from Algeria, in an unexpected turn of events for the Western intelligence agencies, which, judging by the silence from those circles, have appeared to overlook this possibility? Does Algeria harbor its own clandestine nuclear ambitions, and is Tehran assisting in that effort? Is Hamas, which is funded by Iran with regards to its border operations, a facilitator of best practices between the two countries? These questions are yet to be explored, but provide a variety of troubling scenarios for Morocco’s own security considerations. A nuclear Algeria, with or without Iran’s assistance, is a significantly greater danger than an Algeria, which has been a regional rival and a significant nuisance, but not a direct existential threat.

On the surface, Algeria seems disinterested in nuclear bombmaking, and is in fact, has sued  France for the toxic nuclear tests conducted in the 1960s. France agreed to pay compensation to the victims in 2008. Since then, however, Algerian government and Iran have grown closer. Should the country ever be interested in conducting nuclear tests, it has the sites and the legacy knowhow to do so. Outwardly, Algeria calls for the acceleration of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. At the same time, however, it has staunchly supported Iran’s nuclear research despite Tehran’s obvious intent to yield a nuclear weapon. These commens, then, could be nothing more than politically advantageous virtue signaling. Indeed, a former Algerian Minister stated, in 2015, that Algeria should obtain “nuclear weapons” to “drive out Jews from Palestine”.

Whether his comments have anything to do with the Palestinian scientists studying in Algiers is unknown. However, what is known is that since the implementation of the Es Salaam nuclear reactor, Algeria likely obtained the capability to produce plutonium, which is a necessary component  for the production of nuclear weapons. In the late 1990s, Spain’s intelligence concluded that the Algerian atomic program exceeds its civil needs. And while Algeria is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, its support for Iran’s intention to do so, shows that at the very least the Algerian government is conflicted on the issue. Analysts speculate that proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, including Algeria, is likely to become a norm in the near future.

In April 2019, US and Algerian representatives met for an implementation review of the joint framework of cooperation to combat illicit nuclear and radiological weapons. Having a country that is potentially involved in facilitation of illicit activity to be at the vanguard of international cooperation to combat smuggling would be somewhat akin to having a Soviet mole lead the charge in the investigation of his own espionage activity inside the FBI. However, that indeed happened with Robert Hanssen. With the demise of the Palestinian scientists in Algeria, coming only weeks before the mysterious death of a nuclear scientists in Syria, perhaps it is time to reexamine the presumption of innocence, and instead start connecting the dots indicating a potential cover up of nuclear researching favoring Iran’s agenda.

And an Iran looking to further its nuclear ambitions right next doors to Morocco is likewise not a welcome development, as such activity would attract bad actors of every possible background to the vicinity, and ,may lead to additional security incidents and clashes at the borders and in Western Sahara.  Whether or not rumors about Mossad’s involvement in clandestine operations which have eliminated Iranian and Hamas operatives in North Africa hold any water,  the issues that have been raised as a result of the discussion these incidents generations are worth the trouble to investigate for the sake of preventing security disasters  in North Africa.  Mossad may or may not be present in North Africa, but Iran is definitely playing spy games – and may be looking to ensnare Morocco next.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.

© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission.